Former Army Ranger Christian Cage Owens joined the Vipers Motorcycle Club for its sense of brotherhood. In return, he pledged to live outside the law, protecting club members and their families, as well as keeping other MCs out of Skulls Creek. But when Cage discovers that a rival MC—one Cage has an all too familiar past with—plans to push meth into his town, he calls an old Army buddy turned private investigator who’s helped the Vipers in the past. By doing so, Cage endangers both his friend and Calla Benson, a woman who works in the PI’s office. Now he’s made it his mission to track Calla down and do whatever it takes to protect her.
Thanks to the phone call with Cage, Calla knows she’s formed a deep connection to a dangerous man. She quickly discovers that although he may live by a different set of rules, Cage is an honorable man who wants to be more than her protector—if only she can accept his dangerous lifestyle. But Calla comes to Skulls Creek with her own set of secrets…secrets that threaten to tear her and Cage—and the Vipers MC—apart. As they put their newfound love to the ultimate test, Cage will risk everything he cares about to save her…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The office phone rang at 4:55 p.m.
On a Friday.
When I had my keys in hand, bag over my shoulder, ready to lock up behind me.
I debated ignoring the insistent ringing, but since I didn’t have any actual evening plans, I walked backward a few steps and glanced at the caller ID. And froze.
I snatched up the phone before I could stop myself, forgoing the usual niceties of “Bernie’s Investigations” in favor of a clipped “Calla speaking.”
“Calla, it’s your father.”
As hard as he’d tried to be a part of my life, we didn’t speak very often, so “Hi, Dad” wasn’t exactly a major part of my vocabulary. “What’s going on?” I asked instead.
It was the way my mother had always greeted him, so I guessed, Like mother, like daughter. But just like all the times I’d spoken with him before, his voice soothed me. And, as I always did, I tried to ignore the brief moment of comfort. I was desperate for family but I’d grown up unable to trust any of them.
His tone didn’t change—it wasn’t chiding or cold, but still warm and comforting when he said, “Actually, your boss called me.”
“He was worried about you.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me. I know your brother stole your money. I know you had to sell the bar,” my father said.
“When did Bernie tell you that?”
“The first day you went to see him.”
Bernie had betrayed me from the start. I didn’t understand how someone I’d told a bit of my family history to, in order to find my thieving shit of a brother, could so easily take that information and hurt me with it. “That’s true. But I’m not homeless. I’m working and I’m fine. Bernie never should’ve involved you. I didn’t ask him to.”
The first time I ever spoke to my father, I was fifteen and in the hospital.
Because of that, I associated him with the very worst thing that had happened in my life. The entire conversation was like a knife stabbed through me. And maybe I was being dramatic, but my father and I never had the typical father-daughter relationship. Or any relationship at all.
My father sighed, like he was reading my mind. “Bernie contacted me in case I heard anything from your brother. That was all he asked. And I hadn’t heard from Ned, not until last night.”
Ned was my half brother, and Jameson Bradley wasn’t his father. “Ned contacted you?”
I heard a hard swallow on the other end of the line, which meant this couldn’t be good. “Does your brother know about what happened to you?”
My mouth opened and closed. My world spun. “Yes,” I managed. Ned was a year older than me, but we’d never been close.
“He’s got the pictures,” my father admitted reluctantly.
“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“He wants money,” I said hollowly.
Which meant he’d blown through everything Mom and Grams left, including the money from the sale of the bar that he’d sold from under my nose. He’d always had far too much influence on both of them, and he’d twisted it to his advantage, even though we were supposed to make joint decisions regarding the bar and any money to be split. “I’ll find a way—”
“I took care of it. I am taking care of it. With Bernie’s help. I didn’t want to keep you in the dark, Calla. You have a right to know everything.”
Something about the way he said “everything”concerned me, but Bernie’s cell phone began to ring. And Bernie wasn’t in the office. He never went anywhere without that phone, and I knew that ring—an urgent one reserved for only a select few clients. Clients I never spoke to.
“Can I call you back?”
“Please do, Calla. I’d really like to talk to you . . . about more than just this.” He sounded so sincere and I convinced myself it was just years of practice. The rich were different.
So was I. “I will.”
I hung up and went into Bernie’s office, rooted around and found the phone on the ground. “Shit.”
I debated answering, when whoever it was hung up. And called again two seconds later. There were also texts from the same number with 911, and I knew what that meant.
* * *
My voice was tentative when I picked up with, “I’m not Bernie.”
A man’s rough voice countered with, “I’m dying.”
Okay, then, the dying man wins.
I never knew words could haunt, but those would. Fear raced through me even though I wasn’t the one in direct danger. I took a breath and started, “If you’ll just . . .” If you’ll just hang on a minute, dying man, I’ll try to track my boss down . . . “Can you tell me your location?”
“Where . . . the fuck . . . is Bernie?” His breathing was labored, his speech peppered with pauses, like he was trying to gain the strength to get the words out.
“Please, sir, if you tell me where you are I can send help—” I started and he broke in, saying, “No. Time.” And then, “Sir? Jesus Christ,” but his voice was so weak and slurred, I had to strain to hear it.
“Bernie’s not here. He dropped this phone in his office. Please, let me try to help you—I’ll send an ambulance and the police.”
I had no idea what else to do, but I wouldn’t hang up on this man. I took a deep breath, forced the words past my tightening throat. “Okay. Tell me what you need me to do.”
Talk? “I want to help you.”
“Might be . . . the only . . . one.”
“I’ve never had this happen.”
“Me . . . neither.”
He was drawing in harsh breaths between each of the words. He sounded so labored and I figured the more I talked, the less he’d have to. “My name’s Calla.”
“Sounds . . . soft. Pretty. Fits you.”
Soft. God. “Please don’t—” I took a deep breath and stopped before I could say die. “What happened to you?”
“Shot. Knifed. Beaten. Hit . . . by a moving car.”
“Just that, huh?” The sarcasm slipped out because I was nervous.
He huffed a laugh and then drew in a sharp breath and muttered, “Fuck.”
“What’s your name?”
There was a pause and I thought I’d lost him. But then he said, “Cage.”
“Cage. I like that nickname.”
“S’my middle name. First . . . is Christian.”
Christian Cage. I liked it.
“Talk,” he commanded, and God, I couldn’t let him down. So I asked the first thing that popped into my mind. “What do you look like?”
“Gonna . . . set up a dating profile . . . for me? Better do it . . . quick.”
It was my turn to laugh. “I can certainly do that for you.”
“Just don’t . . . call me ‘sir.’” There was a long pause and heavy breathing that sounded like he was in tremendous pain. I glanced out the window, hoping to catch sight of Bernie’s truck. He never went very far if he went out at all during his time on in the office. “Six foot four. Dark . . . hair. Green eyes. Your . . . turn.”
I was cute, certainly, but not a head-turning supermodel type. “I’m five foot five. And a quarter.”
He was teasing. Dying, and still teasing. Dammit, where was Bernie? “My hair’s blond. Shoulder length. And I have blue eyes.”
He wasn’t asking, but telling. “If you ask what I’m wearing, I won’t answer.”
Another laugh, another gasp of pain. “Won’t . . . ask. But I can picture it.”
“Should I even ask?”
“I’m not picturing clothes.”
My cheeks burned at the roughness of his voice. “You’re dying and you’re picturing me naked?”
“I’m a guy,” he said. And he did sound better, so who was I to argue? I laughed, then put my hand over my mouth simultaneously to keep from crying. “What . . . were you doing . . . before I called?”
“I was on the phone.” I didn’t mean for the words to come out so clipped.
“You sound sad. Can’t be . . . for me.”
“Calla . . .”
The way he said my name was like a warning and a command. The oddest thing, but I blurted out, “It’s just my family.”
Because a dying man needed my drama.
“Do you get along . . . with them?” he asked.
God, I didn’t want to talk about this. I felt the blurred edges of a panic attack closing in, sure that if I looked up I’d see the room glazed over. Instead of looking up, I forced myself into tunnel vision. “My mom died a couple of years ago. My Grams died early last year.” And I’m all alone.
“I know what being all alone’s like.”
I hadn’t realized I’d said that out loud. Cage and I shared a silent moment together, and I wondered if he realized the irony that, finally, neither of us was alone. “Grams used to tell me that being able to keep someone’s company is the most important thing in the world, and that the hard part was finding the person who you could tell your deepest, darkest secrets to.”
“What are yours?”
I almost didn’t answer, but knew I had to. “I’m scared I’ll always be alone.”
“By choice? Or . . . by design?”
“Both,” I admitted.
“Don’t . . . let that happen.”
I swear, it sounded like an order despite the hitch. “You sound better.”
“Yeah. Feel . . . beyond the pain.”
That couldn’t be good. I gripped the phone hard as I forced myself still.
“God, Calla, I really fucked this up.” He laughed, but it came out more like a groan. “Should’ve known . . . I tried to fight them. My whole life, I tried . . .”
“Don’t let them win, Cage. Please . . .”
“You sound like you know what it’s like.”
“I do. And I let someone win and I hate him for it.”
There was such a long pause that I thought I’d lost him—I closed my eyes and just waited for what seemed like forever.
And then he said, “Fuck, Calla. Would strangle the son of a bitch who hurt you” in a voice so strong and fierce that I actually took a step back and hit the wall.
“I’d let you,” I said softly.
“What did he do to you?”
“I can’t tell you.” I couldn’t tell anyone. It had been all locked up, put away. Except it never really was. “There was this guy. I was fifteen. He—” I couldn’t say much more except, “He took so much from me.”
I waited for him to say he was sorry, that he wished he could do something, because there were so many wishes associated with what had happened to me.
Instead, he growled, “Did anyone make him pay?”
Even though that’s not what Cage was asking, I thought of the money in my account. The pictures. “No,” I whispered.
“He will pay. I promise.”
How many broken promises had I waded through? “Don’t.”
“Don’t defend you?”
“I don’t goddamned believe you, Cage, so take it back.”
“Who gets into a fight with a dying man?” he asked out loud.
“I don’t believe in promises.”
“And I . . . don’t . . . break them. You need to be . . . prepared.”
Prepared? What did that mean? “Don’t do this to me.”
“What are you afraid of?” he challenged, sounding more resolved by the second.
“That you’re going to want to know what happened to me. That you’re not going to want me.”
“I think you’re really . . . scared that I might . . . want you, and you’ll have to let . . . those walls . . . all the way down.”
I wanted to tell him this was a hypothetical conversation, that I was happy he was going to live, but that I’d make sure he didn’t find me.
And what are you going to do, Calla? Quit Bernie’s and run away?
“I don’t want to believe you,” I told him.
“But you do.”
“Maybe,” I admitted.
“Fucking meet my angel in the middle of hell,” he managed, more to himself than me. “Gotta go, Calla. Remember . . . what I said.”
“Cage, please let me do something for you.”
“Babe, you have no idea what . . . you’ve already . . . done. I . . . Shit.”
“I’m . . . coming back.”
“I believe you,” I said, because how could I not? Because I wanted him to. “Let me help you.”
There was a silence and then he coughed and then, “Gonna give you a number. Remember . . . it.”
“Bernie . . . tell him . . . immediately. Important.”
“I will.” I memorized the last thing I’d know about Cage. Ten numbers that meant nothing. “I’ve got it.”
I repeated them and he sighed. “Good. Sorry . . . so sorry.”
Sorry? For dying? For giving me a relatively simple job? For not letting me help him? “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Cage.”
“Jesus. You did . . . everything.”
“Cage . . .”
But the line clicked off. I blinked back tears, unable to stop the small sob that made my shoulders lift involuntarily. I was yelling then, slamming the desk with my fists before I pulled my shit together.
Feeling like I’d failed.
Another loss. My whole life was loss and pain, and why I thought it could be any different, I had no idea.
I looked up at a picture behind Bernie’s desk, hanging low on the wall. I’d never really noticed it before, because if I was in here, Bernie was in his big chair, which partially covered it. Why it was hung so low was another story, but I finally realized that Bernie was one of the men wearing an Army uniform. I grabbed a magnifying glass to look at the names on the uniforms. There was one man, his head turned to the side . . .
“Bernie!” I dropped the magnifying glass and turned, wanting to hug him. I handed him his phone and started babbling about Cage and the numbers.
His face paled. He looked behind him, out the window and then tossed me a set of keys. I caught them instinctively. “Black truck in the corner of the lot. Walk to it like it’s yours. Get in. Hit the GPS and follow where it takes you. Money’s in the glove compartment. Do you understand?”
“There’s trouble, honey. Please, do what I say. Now.”
He walked out then. I don’t know why, but I grabbed the picture from his wall before I went out the back, grabbing my bag along the way.
Two weeks earlier, he’d gotten a call that made him close his office door. He never closed the door. And when he’d finally emerged, he’d been pale and distracted. Twitchy, even.
For the rest of that week, he answered all his own calls. But then things seemed to go back to normal. We dealt with the usual cases . . . some heartbreaking, some frivolous.
I supposed I could call in my father, ask for help. Or I could throw off everything, once and for all, and thank Cage by actually going free.
When I got into the black car and turned the key in the ignition, I’d made the choice. As I pulled the car out of the lot, I heard gunshots, four in a row, and I forced myself not to go back and check on Bernie. Instead, I followed his orders and got the hell out of there. Running from my past and present . . . and realizing I had no clue where my future lay.
My mind swam as I forced my attention on the slippery, rain-slicked roads ahead. Thankfully, the truck gripped the road, as if it knew I didn’t have the strength to focus. Normally I’d never drive like this, but the roads were clear and I figured the only one I’d be hurting was myself.
Mom was killed by a drunk driver and then two years later, Grams died. I’d come home from college for the funeral and found out that my brother had taken everything out of Grams’s accounts, using her debit card. Except for my settlement money, which he couldn’t touch. My mother had never been able to either, which was why my father had put it into a trust for me in the first place. I had money at my disposal, but I wouldn’t give in and use it. It was blood money, as far as I was concerned.
I was supposed to start a job in London this past fall. Instead, I’d found myself sitting in the office of a private eye named Bernie, explaining that I needed to find my brother and get the money and the deed to the bar back.
Bernie had looked at me a long time before he’d said, “Sweetheart, even if you had money, I wouldn’t take your case. You’ve had everything taken from you already.”
I’d refused to break down in front of him.
He’d continued. “I knew your Grams. She was a good woman. Your brother’s an ass. Put it behind you, live your life.”
“How?” I’d asked, trying not to sound pathetic.
“Work for me.”
And from there, I’d started to rebuild. And I realized that a lot of people had it worse than me. Taking pictures of husbands for suspicious wives—and vice versa—was the bulk of his business, but there was so much more he did for people.
Bernie had given me my life back. A job, a place to stay, and he was kind. His wife and daughter had been killed by a drunk driver ten years earlier, and he’d spent the rest of his days helping people get justice. We were drawn together by the pain of circumstance and I worked hard to help him.
And now I was going someplace Bernie had sent me. He’d done everything to protect me from the seedy side of his business. I had to trust this was no different.
I followed the GPS, driving for about six hours nearly nonstop to pass the North Carolina border. I took one quick break once I was across that state line, for gas and the bathroom at a busy enough rest stop peppered with minivans and tired children asleep in their seats.
Happy families. At least they appeared that way on the outside. I got back into the truck and drove away from the appearance of happy as fast as I could. I was more focused, but I hadn’t been able to stop shaking. The heat was turned up so high that the windows fogged.
Finally, I was directed up a long private drive that was close enough to the beach for me to smell the salt water. I had a choice there—I had a truck and some money and I could just cut and run.
But Bernie had never steered me wrong. He’d never given me a reason not to trust him. And whoever was at the end of this driveway was now my only real connection to Cage.
I pulled all the way up to the big house, parked and stumbled out of the car. The whole day—my entire past—swirled around me like an impending storm. The worst hadn’t come yet, the pit of doom in my stomach unsettling me to the point of shaking.
I barely pulled myself together to make it up the path. The gun from the truck was barely concealed in my bag, and the man who stood in the now-opened front door of the house caught sight of it immediately, his eyes casually flickering from it to my eyes.
“That’s more dangerous for you if you don’t know how to use it,” he noted. He wore dog tags, a black wifebeater and jeans with bare feet. He was good looking in an almost movie star kind of way, but there was nothing plastic about him.
I wanted to say that I knew how to use it—and I did know how—but those words wouldn’t come out.
But I did hear some moaning in the background, and I wasn’t imagining it, because he called over his shoulder, “Guys, can you stop rehearsing for a minute?” before turning back to me and saying, “Are you here for a job? Because I don’t take walk-ins or women.”
I’d dropped my voice to a whisper. “I’m not here for a job. I’m here for—”
I couldn’t get his name out. I must’ve started to shake. I’d been faking strength the whole ride down, and now the thought of this man ready to turn me away had me at near collapse.
“Sweetheart, you took a wrong turn somewhere,” he told me, like the command in his voice would be enough to turn me away. But that only served to remind me of Cage, which strengthened my resolve.
I shook my head no. “I have no place else to go.”
“There are hotels. Shelters,” he started, then stopped. Looked between me and the gun and an expression I couldn’t quite place settled there for a moment as he asked, “Honey, whose truck is that? How did you know where to find me?”
I opened my mouth, wanted to tell him, but the debilitating panic took over. I pointed to my throat, tried to go into my bag for the meds I hadn’t needed in a very long time. I kept them with me anyway, like a talisman.
But I was shaking and somehow frozen, not an easy combination. I realized he was taking the gun from me and I couldn’t tell him what I needed to.
“Shit, Eddie, a little help here.” His grip was strong and sure as he led me inside. I heard him say, “Put the truck in the garage and get rid of the GPS and her fucking cell phone. Not a fucking trace of either.”
And then he was focusing on me again. His words were low and calm, although they didn’t reach me, because I’d already folded into my panic. Or it had already folded into me. Either way, I was overwhelmed with it.
In my mind, I was rifling through my bag, searching for my pills, even though I was cognizant of the fact that I hadn’t moved.
I saw him holding up my pill bottle in front of me. I tried to nod. I don’t think I managed to. To his credit, he got me to swallow the med. I don’t remember doing it, but the next thing I knew, I was sitting on a couch, covered in a blanket, and he was sitting next to me.
“Sorry,” I managed, my voice thick and drowsy.
“Drink this,” he instructed, pressing a glass into my hand. I did, mainly because he sounded scary, but I spilled some of it. “Pull yourself together and drink it.”
I glanced at him. “Frankly, I think you’re a little judgmental of my panic.”
He took the glass from me, stood and trapped me against the back of the couch, his arms on its back on either side of my head, his body blocking me from going anywhere. Like I could even get up. “Where’d you get the gun and the car?” he demanded.
“Bernie,” I whispered, my throat raw.
The man blinked. “He just gave them to you?”
“Yes. He’s . . . we’re in trouble. He sent me out. There were shots.”
He held up the picture I’d taken from Bernie’s office, his expression tight. “Did you shoot him?”
“If there’s something you need to tell me . . .”
“Bernie said that the GPS was in his car—take it to where it was programmed.”
“That’s not his car.”
“No, not the one he drove every day,” I agreed. “He started using it two weeks ago. Today he told me to take it. That there was trouble.”
“You said you heard shots. How did you manage to get away?”
“I just told you—Bernie sent me out.” I stared at him. “Do you think he’s . . . ?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should call.”
“Not until I know more.”
“Do you know Cage?” I was going to wait for him to say yes, but he didn’t hide his expression. “I think he’s hurt.”
“He told me he was dying.” A few tears ran down my cheeks but I refused to break down. Because Cage had promised, although I couldn’t tell the man in front of me that.
“How do you know him?”
“I . . . didn’t.” I stared at him, waiting for him to tell me that I shouldn’t cry over someone I didn’t know. Instead, he turned around and spit out a string of curses, many of which I’d never heard before. I tried to commit some of them to memory, but he was muttering now, pacing a little, throwing his hands in the air as if having a conversation with an invisible someone in the room.
Then he turned back, poured a glass of whiskey instead of water and said, “Drink this.”
This time, I did. “I don’t know your name.”
“Ten like the number?”
“Two n’s. Short for Tennessee.”
“Were you born there?”
“Nope. In Tallahassee.” He shrugged when I frowned. “My mom was what they call confused. My dad was what you’d call a convict.”
The whiskey mixed with the antianxiety pill I’d taken earlier was making it impossible to keep my eyes open. I didn’t bother trying, but I wasn’t wholly passed out either. At least I don’t think I was, because I was aware of Tenn’s conversation . . .
“No powder residue on her hands or the gun. What the fuck is happening, Tals? . . .What do you mean, you’ll come get her? No way am I exposing her to Vipers. She’s already had a panic attack. You try to bring her into the MC, you’re not going to like what happens.” A pause and then, “No, asshole, she’s not another stray. And maybe I can remind you that you were a stray? Yeah, well, fuck you too.”
I jerked my head at the harsh growl in Tenn’s voice. Then I heard, “Calla said Cage was dying. I haven’t heard from the fucker in months and now he’s dead?”
“You think I shot Bernie.”
At the sound of my voice, he froze, then turned. “I’ll call you back. We are not done.”
When he hung up, he shoved the phone into his pocket. “That was my brother. He’s a dick sometimes.”
I knew the feeling, so I simply nodded. But I could never talk about Ned with the affection that Tenn did for his brother, no matter the names he’d called him. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Sweetheart, you knocked on my front door holding Bernie’s gun, you showed up in his car and you were panicked.”
“Have you heard from him?”
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “Why don’t you get cleaned up and lay down for a while, ’cause you look like hell.”
I stared at him and he broke into a faint grin. I decided I liked him. I even let him help me up and into a room down the hall. He pointed to the bathroom, said, “I’m guessing you don’t have any clothes with you.”
I shook my head, determined not to cry again. At least not in front of him.
“We’ll figure it out, Calla.”
When he left, I went into the bathroom and stripped down. I’d been battered. I’d been through an inner war that I’d waged and I didn’t know if I was winning or losing, but I was definitely on the edge of one or the other.
I stood under the warm spray of the shower and let it rain down on me. My tears mingled with the water; the sounds hid my sobs. It was because of Bernie, because of what I’d lost in the past already, and it was for sure because of Christian Cage Owens.
I’d asked him the impossible and he’d promised it to me. Promised. Was I a fool to believe him? Because I felt like I’d be a fool not to.
Tenn had laid out some clothes for me—shorts and a T-shirt and socks. Brand-new underwear. Tenn was prepared, and I began to wonder how many people in trouble Bernie sent his way. And how most of them were men.
There was also more tea, with whiskey on the side, plus a plate of cookies. Despite my misery, my stomach rumbled. I nibbled on a cookie, sipped the tea after forgoing the liquor, as I looked around the softly lit room.
I noticed it then, propped in the chair across the room. The picture I’d taken from Bernie’s office. I went to it, picked it up and studied it as I padded back to the bed.
“You okay, Calla?”
I glanced up to see Tenn in the doorway. “I’m not sure.”
“I left the door open in case you had another panic attack.”
I believed him. “You were talking to someone named Eddie earlier.”
“Yeah, he works for me. I sent him and the others away, though. It’s just us.”
“Okay.” I stared down at the throw rug, noting how it contrasted with the dark floors, then looked at the picture again.
“That feels like a lifetime ago,” Tenn said, and when I looked up he was checking out the picture.
“Was Cage in the Army with you and Bernie?”
He tilted his head. Didn’t answer.
I still believed that “C. Owens” was Cage. “I told Cage something and he said . . . he said he was coming back for me. He promised. And I hate him for that, because everyone always breaks their promises.”
I said it so fast that I thought maybe Tenn didn’t even understand. Even though I knew what I said, I was confused, and unwilling to tell Tenn what exactly I’d told Cage.
He didn’t ask anything else and his expression softened. “You can stay here.”
I was already planted against the pillows, planning on doing just that. “I sound ridiculous, I realize.”
Tenn shook his head. “You don’t. What Cage told you isn’t ridiculous—not if you know him. Sounds like you do.”
I couldn’t deny that, but I wasn’t sure if I’d dreamed the whole thing up.
And for the next couple of weeks (and I only knew the length of time when I’d come out the other end of the tunnel) I stayed in bed. Cried. Slept. Dreamed of a dark-haired man with rough hands and a rougher voice telling me he’d protect me.
Even as I mourned him, mourned my other life, mourned everything I’d lost, I held on to Cage’s promise. I didn’t care if that was stupid, because not only was it all I had, but it was all I wanted.
I’d slept around to get rid of the ghosts of my past, but I’d never felt anything remotely like I did with Cage just talking to me. His voice did more to me than any man’s hands ever had.
It was impossible to fall in love with someone from a ten-minute phone call. Impossible to fall in love with a man who’d been dying as we spoke.
Somehow, I’d managed the impossible.
Those full two weeks later, I got out of bed only when Tenn threatened to forcibly shower me. After a turn under the warm water, I did feel better. And then Tenn lured me out into the open with the smell of food, the bastard. Normally, he’d bring it right into my room, but today he was Mister Tough Love.
I went out into the living room with my hair still wet and found a couple of guys there. They didn’t pay me much attention, but they weren’t rude or anything. I continued along until I found Tenn in the kitchen.
There was a tall, slim boy there too. Maybe seventeen or so, I guessed, and he was sitting alone at the table, writing in a notebook. Whether he noticed me or not, or if he was so absorbed in the writing, he didn’t let on.
“Sit.” Tenn pointed to the enormous helpings of eggs and bacon and pancakes he’d put on two plates, all for me. And then he pushed a big cup of coffee in front of me.
“I feel like you’re going to give me bad news.”
“I am. No more sleeping for weeks.”
“Yeah, I got that message.”
Tenn leaned against the counter and glanced out at the small crowd in the other room. I took those few moments to really study him.
He was tall. Rangy. But somehow I knew he could be deceptively agile if needed. The young man got up and wandered away, muttering to himself.
“That’s Kev. He’s writing a book,” Tenn explained.
“Do the others work for you too?”
“And what kind of work do you do?” I asked. “Same as Bernie?”
“Ah, no. Definitely not.” He wrapped a hand around a mug, dwarfing it. “Some of them are escorts.”
“Escorts,” I echoed, and he nodded. “You run the business from here?”
“Nope. I keep my places separate.” He pointed across the street and gave me a half smile and I tried to reconcile the image of him running an escort service. Which he obviously knew, because he added, “We also do some porn, but it’s mostly webcam stuff. A couple of my guys are getting a good following, though. It’s filmed here, but the guys stay across the street for the most part.”
He wasn’t saying it to shock me, or maybe he was, but I still managed, “Escorts and porn, huh?”
“Not a bad way to live. Money’s good.”
“So you get a cut and what do they get?” I asked.
“Something most of them haven’t had their entire lives—protection,” Tenn said, his voice slightly fierce even though he was still smiling.
“I believe you,” I said quietly. “Just wondering why.”
“Why not?” he countered. “Money’s good. I keep the porn side for the guys only. Easier that way, and they’re more than happy to get paid for something they’d be doing anyway.”
“All of them?”
“Everything I do here is safe, sane and consensual. If they aren’t happy, I can spot them pretty quickly. And they don’t belong either here or in the business. Sex is supposed to be happy. Freeing. Good stuff. And the escorting’s a different business altogether. I’ve got bodyguards for both sexes. Everything happens in my place of business, and if it doesn’t, there’s going to be one of my guards there watching.”
I blinked. Tried to imagine Bernie with Tenn, but it fit. Because Tenn was fiercely protective. And none of the guys I’d seen looked upset or any the worse for wear. “Are you in any of the films?” I asked, in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“I’m the brains behind the operation,” he said. “Someone’s got to watch out for them. But private performances? Now, that’s a different story.”
“Cage . . . was he working for you? With you?”
“Are you asking if there are any of his performances on tape?” I blushed and he laughed, a rich, throaty sound, and then let me off the hook. “He works with my brother.” His gaze fell somewhere over my shoulder for just a second and then landed back on me. “They’re part of an MC. A motorcycle club.”
“Like a gang?”
“Not a gang. A club,” he emphasized.
“I’m guessing there’s a big difference.”
“I’m guessing you’re going to want me to explain it to you.”
Escorts. Porn. Motorcycle gangs. What kind of life had Bernie been hiding behind his ramrod straight posture and easy smile? I guessed we really all did have secrets. “Wait a minute—you totally sidestepped the whole question about Cage and private performances.”
“I have to respect the privacy of my performers.”
Oh my God. “Let’s talk about the club versus gang thing.”
For the next twenty minutes, he explained what had to be a very simplified version of MCs. How they had ties to the military. How some of them were one-percenters—aka serious criminals—and how the others, although not as hard-core, were still equally as dangerous.
He didn’t tell me exactly what the MC Cage was a part of did, but obviously I was somehow involved in bad MC business.
“I think that’s enough of a trip into MC Land for the day,” Tenn said. “You’re safe here, Calla. Me and Bernie and Cage—and my brother—we know what we’re doing.”
He was still talking about Cage in the present tense. Maybe it was false hope, but I took it as a good sign.
“Welcome. We’re going to be doing a little filming. Private room and everything’s soundproofed, okay?”
I nodded. With a squeeze of my shoulder, he left and I tried to wrap my head around the whole MC thing. Bikes. Leather. Angry men who drank and scared towns and did drugs. It fit with the violence Cage had encountered and it scared me. For him, for me, because what had I been inadvertently caught up in?
I wanted to believe him, to believe in something, but I was dragging a heavy past behind me, one that was strewn with lies and more broken promises than I could handle.
Because of Cage and his promise to return—for me—I was balancing, walking the tightrope above my fears, refusing to look down. Because the drop was steep, and I’d been left with nothing this time. I was rebuilding from zero. I had a roof over my head. I could take Bernie’s truck and his money and leave. Start over.
But I couldn’t get Christian Cage Owens out of my mind. I dreamed about him, kept hearing his voice cover me like a rough, heavy blanket. I’d heard the fierceness in his voice. He would come for me.
Would I be making the biggest mistake of my life by going with him?
* * *
Later that afternoon, Tenn left me in the house with the alarm on so he could go check on the escort portion of his business. He left me a throwaway cell phone with his number programmed in and he pointed out where he’d be—literally across the street.
The area was so quiet. He had to have picked this place on purpose so there would be no neighbors complaining about what he did for a living.
“You’ve come a long way from boarding school and private colleges,” I muttered to myself. Mom and Grams would have a fit. My father probably would too, although he knew I was working for Bernie and he hadn’t said anything.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Stephanie Tyler
“Fast-paced, dark, and wickedly edgy…No one writes a bad-boy hero like Tyler.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Larissa Ione
“Raw [and] sexy.”—New York Times bestselling author Maya Banks
"Kept me on the edge of my seat...Breathtaking danger, sizzling romance, and unexpected twists."—New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Ivy